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Modi’s Chale Jao vs Non-politics of the Opposition

Suhas Palshikar (suhaspalshikar@gmail.com) is a political commentator and former teacher of politics and public administration at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent appeal invoking the spirit of “quit India” is characteristic of his larger politics beyond merely electoral successes. The opposition, in contrast, is clueless about both electoral strategy and the politics to counter the new regime. Given the adverse effects the Modi regime is likely to have on democracy, the opposition’s lack of political instinct is all the more saddening.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team are certainly not short on ideas that can easily impress the masses. The Prime Minister’s recent (30 July) monologue (Mann ki Baat) is surely going to be a major step in augmenting this feeling. He has appealed to all citizens to take a pledge and to engage in a new movement to ensure that various ills quit India. Chale Jao (or Quit India) has an evocative resonance in Indian minds as a slogan that inspired the nation during the final phase of the struggle for independence. By reclaiming that memory, Modi has yet again shown why he is a successful political actor without any comparison from the contemporary stock of India’s many political leaders.

Ever since Modi emerged on the national political scene, he has distingui­shed himself by his rhetoric—attractive even to sections of the intelligentsia—his polemical attacks on opponents, his penchant for acronyms and above all, by his ability to position himself as a person of big ideas and big thinking. Even after three years in power, Modi’s disposition for self-expression shows no signs of ebbing. In fact, communication constitutes an important part of Modi’s politics.

Slogans, speeches and scripts can be easily set aside as inconsequential. But they are useful instrumentalities to construct and popularise a narrative. Modi did precisely that, first, to win elections, and since then using his communication skills to legitimise his personal leadership, to renew his popularity and to constantly turn politics into mass mobilisation. His critics and opponents appear to miss the import of such manoeuvres.

Replacing Nehru

As this writer has observed elsewhere1—and indeed many others too have begun veering to this view—while Modi’s political personality resembles that of Indira Gandhi, his ambition seems to be to rep­lace Nehru as an icon and as architect of modern democratic India and situate himself on that pedestal. In his efforts to do so, Modi often imitates Nehru, be it his attempts at charm offensives directed at foreign dignitaries or his exhortatory addresses. Like letters to chief ministers, Modi’s speeches in the course of Mann ki Baat would later become a subject of historical study—or at least, that is what his supporters would believe and do.

Mann ki Baat is by far his most interesting initiative to carve a place for himself in the minds of people. There is yet no systematic evidence about the effect of these monthly musings. Sketchy evidence suggests that just about one-third of the people may be somewhat frequently listening to these addresses.2 However, let us not discard the speeches on that count because in these days of media proliferation, speeches are extensively reported, uploaded on social media and generally talked about particularly if a willing set of networking associates is available for the task and Modi possesses such in abundance. So, in decoding the Modi phenomenon, his many initiatives with wordplay need to be taken into account.

In his latest radio address, Modi has made three points: one, that many ills overshadow our freedom, two, that citizens have to engage in a mass drive to eradicate these ills and three, that it will be a fairly long—at least five years—journey to achieve the removal of those ills (from purposive resolve to attainment, sankalp se siddhi, as he called it). If one is willing to keep aside the history and politics of Modi, this argument becomes attractive. For one, there is an admission of the ills, but more than that, there is also an invitation to citizens in building the future. And if one looks at the six ills, there would be unanimity about their presence and also the need to remove them—corruption, poverty, lack of sanitation, casteism, communalism and terrorism.

It is possible to find fault with all this: Why five years? Where is the programme for those five years? Does it imply that the state is abdicating responsibility for removing these and similar ills? Also, as a list, is this not a strange one? It does not, for obvious reasons, prioritise poverty. The ghost of Indira Gandhi must have dissua­ded the Prime Minister from doing so. But even then, mixing up his pet idea of swa­chh Bharat with his political compulsion to list terrorism betrays Modi’s limitations. At the end of the day, this might only resemble a typical list of “challenges before India’s democracy” in a badly written pre-university civics textbook. But such surface criticisms are perhaps beside the point.

Ideological Bias

The list of ills may be, and indeed is, haphazard. Time and again, Modi has refused to rise above petty politics and he cannot free himself of ideological partisanship even in moments of adopting the Nehruvian posture. But the strength of this speech is not in its accuracy, not in erudition; nor in its nuance. It is the politics of this speech that deserves attention. The mention of the five evils adroitly reminds his audience of the claim that “60 years of Congress rule” have still left these unattended. His mention of the five- year project places him as a leader confident of his future position. So, rather than being miscellaneous musings, these ideas begin to fall in place for the larger narrative he is building.

Since the success in the Uttar Pradesh assembly, he has set his sights on an ambitious, though so far only sketchily outlined claim to being the architect of “new India.” If we discount the unmistakable Nehru motif (mark also the midnight speech unveiling the tryst with the Goods and Services Tax–GST!), the recent Mann ki Baat can be seen as an extension of the project of redefining India and working towards realising that idea. By appealing to the members of the public to take a pledge, Modi has simultaneously achieved three things. One, he has given people an “action plan” that can be followed easily—just take a pledge and you have done your duty to the nation (one can of course detect a few who have not taken the pledge and beat them up). Second, Modi has also given ordinary citizens a sense of participation. People are apt to believe that they are partners in this great nation building project of the Prime Minister. Three, and more crucially, he has given his workers a task. The (new) “chale jao” is bound to become a programme of the party (by the time this article is published, the party would already be following up on this). While most of such party activities would predictably be limited to exhibitionist programmes, there is still a possibility that the party units would have a platform to interact with voters beyond election time and that too, on an apparently non-political basis. Such activities would also be a convenient route to appropriate government funds through platforms floated and run by the party.

Opposition in Reaction Mode

Thus, constant rejuvenation of the mandate and continuous attempts to push party workers into regular contact with the voters set Modi apart from most other parties. In contrast, if one looks at the non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parties, we come across a dismal lack of politics and imagination. Do these parties and leaders have anything to offer? In the past three years, the record of most of these parties has been disappointing on this score. In the first place, with a whiff of a new dominant party system, non-BJP parties have gone into a “response and reaction” mode. This is of course, partly inevitable as an opposition. But opposition to Modi’s policies has been flawed on at least two counts. One, parties tend to oppose what they originally proposed when in power—this is particularly true of the Congress. Two, this opposition completely lacks any tinge of an alternative that is viable and attractive. Such opposition is devoid of any ability to attract the masses and mobilise them against the ruling establishment. It is difficult to give even a single instance during the past three years wherein any party in the opposition has proactively raised an issue, followed it up both in the legislatures and among the masses and thus presented itself as offering something different from the BJP. While the Trinamool Congress is enga­ged in a bitter battle with the BJP in West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s politics lacks direction and smacks of cynical appropriation of all issues for short-term gains alone. As for most other state parties, they are in the process of winding up their opposition to the BJP and going down the Nitish Kumar path.

Even on critical question of communa­lism, opponents of the BJP are still content with talking the same language of two decades ago and imagining the false and politically irrelevant secular/communal divide. On the question of triple talaq, for instance, the secular parties have been happily pursuing a communal position. But these are only stray instances. The critical malady is that in the backdrop of Modi’s more and more ambitious plans of building a new hegemony, the dwarfish efforts of his opponents appear even more inconsequential and comic (and consequently tragic for India’s democracy). It is indeed necessary that opposition parties risk being negative and oppose wrong policies and wrong implementation. But they also have to counter wrong ideological formulations and for doing so only criticism would not suffice. In order to rise to the level of critique, there has to be anchoring in a firm insistence about what India as a nation and as a state constitutes.

Also, it is not sufficient to make formal pronouncements in party documents, press notes or at party forums. The most crucial challenge is to engage the public. Modi’s opponents (not as his personal adversaries but as genuine opponents of the new regime) need to create opportunities for their workers to consistently mix with the voters on the basis of ideas and programmes, not on the basis of wounds sustained due to being in the political wilderness. This can happen only if they begin to think of politics with a capital P—not just politics as electoral alliances, or as meaningless television debates and scoring points within seconds, and begin thinking of the larger picture. Once the Modi opponents exit small-time politics, there may be a window of that larger enterprise of politics.

The “chale jao” slogan is important as an indication of possibilities of larger politics that the ruling party seeks to undertake. That politics, the politics of new hegemony, is problematic for what India’s nationalism and democracy historically stand for. Therefore, it is a sad moment that opponents of the current regime are oblivious to the challenge and tend to shun politics in the moment of its most urgent need.

Notes

1 Half of Achhe?,” Outlook, 9 January 2017, https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/half-of-achhe/298307.

2 Two Lokniti–CSDS surveys, in Bihar and UP, have asked the question about this. In both, not more than 38% and 34% respectively said that they sometimes or regularly listened to these speeches; courtesy: Shreyas Sardesai, Lokniti.

Updated On : 16th Aug, 2017

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